An Exercise in Exploring Pleasant

Running Time: 8:42

This video will explore our attachment to pleasant sensations. When I say “pleasant sensation”, what I actually mean is a physical or mental sensation that has associated with it a hedonic-tone (or vedana) of pleasant. But, because that’s pretty wordy and long-winded, I’ll just use the words “pleasant sensation” as a shorthand.

I was going to start by giving you a bunch of theory behind the relationship between pleasant, unpleasant and neutral hedonic tones and attachment and aversion and how all that leads to suffering. And then I realized that it would be much more instructive, and a lot more fun, to do something more direct. So, instead of a bunch of theory, in this video, I’m going to guide you in a meditation that explores the habitual attachment reaction to pleasant sensations and in a later video, I’ll explain how that leads to suffering.

In order to do this meditation you’ll need some food that you really like. I’m going to use this delicious looking chocolate. Also, it’s best if you do this exercise when you’re a little hungry, but not really hungry and not just after having eaten a full meal. You want to see desire in action.

Ok, so I’ve got my chocolate on a plate here, and I’m going to place it about a foot away from me. I want you to do the same with your chosen food. I want you to look at your food, really take it in. Now, slowly, bring it close to you. Close enough that you can smell it. And as you bring it close, observe what happens in the mind.

See if you can observe the physical and mental sensations that let you know that you want to do something other than just sit there looking at that delicious food. See if you can see how these sensations arise and pass away or change, all on their own. See if you can separate the physical sensations from the mental sensations, such as thoughts and mental images you have around wanting to eat this food.

Now try slowly pushing the food away from you, as if you have decided to not eat any of it. and then see if you can observe the physical and mental sensations that let you know that you want to do something other than just watch that delicious food go away.

Now slowly pick up your food, open your mouth and act as though you were about to eat it, but don’t actually eat it yet. And as you do this, observe the the physical and mental sensations that let you know that you want to finish putting the food in your mouth and eat it, rather than just holding it close to your mouth.

Normally, you’re probably not as consciously aware of experiencing these physical and mental sensations. You probably see the food, perhaps smell it, and then eat it without really being aware of the process by which all that occurs. What I want you to do instead is, see if you can spend a minute just being with these sensations of wanting to eat the food. You may find it easier to observe these sensations when you push the food away, or bring it really close. Play around with it for a minute right now and see what you can observe.

Pretty interesting stuff, isn’t it? What you’ve been observing, in this exercise, is your habitual reaction to pleasant sensations. In this case, the sensations associated with looking at, smelling and anticipating eating some food that you really like. You may have also observed the nature of the suffering associated with wanting the food, but not being able to have it. I’ll talk more about the connection between attachment and aversion and suffering in a later video in week 2.

Now, If you think about it, these are just sensations. Really, from an objective point of view, there’s no particular reason that you need to act on any of these fleeting, impermanent physical and mental sensations, is there? I mean, they’re just sensations, right? If you observe the sensations associated with sitting in a chair right now, for example, do those sensations compel you to suddenly jump up and down? Of course not. Isn’t it interesting that the sensations associated with desiring this particular food item can compel you to pop it in your mouth?

The more you’re able to observe the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral hedonic-tone of sensations and just be with them, rather than immediately act on them, the more space and freedom you’ll have to consciously choos your actions, rather than be compelled to act in a largely unconscious, knee-jerk way.

In your daily meditation practice this week, see if you can identify the hedonic tone of the sensations you observe while meditating or while engaged in your daily life mindfulness practice. And you may also want to explore this further when eating. Are the sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neither? You may also find it helpful to mentally label them as “pleasant”, “unpleasant” or “neutral”. Have fun!